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Chizuk Amuno Congregation

Rosh HaShanah – “The Importance of the Journey”

I am happy to share my sermons with you from the Holidays.  We are also including the links to the streamed video from the sermons as well.  My only request is your understanding that I rarely give the exact version of what is written on the pages in front of me in live time in the sanctuary.  In addition the sermon titled “Our Collective future” was given from an outline.  I have included that outline as well as the video link.  If anyone is interested in any of the individual introductions to the prayers that I gave throughout the holidays please contact me directly.


Mazal Tov on the Successful Prayer for rain, I was unaware that Chizuk Amuno was so successful in their Tefillah

Shanah Tovah

I know that I have said this quite a few times, but on behalf of Elissa, Sam and Kayla, I want to tell you how excited we are to be a part of the Chizuk Amuno Congregation and schools.  There is a tremendous balance within this community between honoring a storied and rich history as a flagship Conservative synagogue, yet at the same time building for the future of our shul, in an ever-changing American Jewish Landscape.  Over the last 10 weeks we have felt the warm and welcoming embrace of the Chizuk community repeatedly.  It has transformed a potentially challenging time for the Gruenberg family, into an affirmation of this journey we have been navigating for the last 16 months.  It is you the many wonderful families of this sacred home that have affirmed our life-changing decision that was ultimately a great leap of faith for all involved.    

It was approximately 16 months ago, while sitting in a meeting, that I received a phone call from an old friend who is a life-long member of Chizuk Amuno.  He told me that Chizuk would shortly be looking for a new senior rabbi, and that he thought it might be a good fit.  Prior to that conversation, I had been thinking about taking the next step in my career, but it was in that moment that those thoughts shifted from hypothetical to real.  I came home and immediately spoke to Elissa about the conversation, and she cried.  Please do not misunderstand, she was not sad or concerned due to a lack of belief that this journey would ultimately prove worthwhile and successful.  In fact, it was Elissa’s confidence and belief that sustained us throughout this process, for which I am even more grateful today than ever before that I married such an incredible partner.  No Elissa’s sadness was borne out of the fact that we were deciding to leave a community that had sustained and nourished us for 7 years.  A community in which we created deep and meaningful relationships, and that shared in the raising of our family.  But we reassured one another that we had navigated difficult journeys together before, and that ultimately it was these kinds of experiences that are the ones that transform our lives, and that made us ready to embark on this next new and scary journey. 

          Life does not come with guarantees.  My mother imparts that lesson to our family with great frequency.  When we began this process, there was no guarantee that we would find the new position that we sought.  There was even a doomsday scenario, in which our old community would have found a new rabbi, and we would not have found a new congregation.  I share that with you to illustrate the inherent discomfort and unease of this process.  There were some incredibly challenging moments along the way.  Telling our children was excruciating.  We know that this move is best for them, but how can they be expected to know the same?  Telling friends, we love dearly and with whom we have shared life’s happiest and saddest moments was painful as well.  Then there was the evening of March 26.  March 26, you ask, what happened that evening?  Well that was the evening that Chizuk Amuno voted on the new senior rabbi.  Clearly, we all got through it, but I would be lying if told you that there weren’t some moments of great anxiety.  I do come from a long line of Jewish worriers.

There is also no guarantee for a synagogue that they will find a new rabbi, or that he will be any good.  As I stated, it is a leap of faith for all involved.  Finding a new rabbi, is often a challenging time for a synagogue.  There are moments during this kind of transition, when a community is forced to confront painful truths about where they are and where they want to go.  I think we all know now that the journey was worth every moment of discomfort because we are here today sharing in this experience together. We have learned a lot through this important yet difficult process.   Important journeys are not easy and often begin with a frightening lack of clarity.    They force us out of our comfort zone into a place of vulnerability where we are consumed by the unknown.  But if we are unable to summon the inner-strength to take the journey, we would never grow as human beings or as communities, and we would be living in a self-perpetuating stasis fettered by the powerful force of inertia.

As I embarked on the rabbinic search process last fall, I sought resources that would help me feel more at ease about this undertaking.  Ironically, I came across an article from Forbes titled, “Why Feeling Uncomfortable is the Key to Success.”  The author Sujan Patel writes, “While it may not feel like it in the moment, a little bit of discomfort goes a long way in terms of personal development. Sure, no one likes feeling uncomfortable, but it’s a big part of improving your performance, creativity and learning in the long run.  Routines may make you feel at ease and in control, but what a constant routine really does is dull your sensitivities.”

I want you to think about a moment in your life when you have engaged in the same routine on a daily basis.  Think about a time in your life when you’ve driven the same route repeatedly: after a certain number of trips, you start tuning out most of it. Have you ever had a trip to the office where you barely remember what happened after you got in the car? If you don’t get out of your comfort zone, you might find yourself tuning out much of your life on a daily basis. But when you go out of your way to experience new things, or when you let new things happen to you, your body creates brand new neural pathways that fuel your creative spark and enhance your memory.

As human beings, left to our own devices we are more likely to avoid the vulnerability of uncomfortable situations, than to engage in them voluntarily.  Often it is beyond our control and we find ourselves wading through the discomfort out of necessity.  But on those rare occasions in life when we can affect change through vision and intention, our lives tend to grow in ways that were once unimaginable.  It is in these moments or journeys when we allow ourselves to be more vulnerable than normal, that we keep our lives moving forward, and invite the opportunity to turn the ordinary into the extraordinary.   Each year we gather on these holy days living in a period that is at its heart quite uncomfortable. Each year the words, rituals and themes of this holy period, take us on an uncomfortable journey.  There are times of anxiety, times of abject fear, but when we do emerge on the other side, we do so stronger and better for having taken this yearly leap of faith

Between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur we live with the book of life as a constant reminder of the import of this period.  Whether we believe this book to be metaphorical or not, its effect is palpable.  There is a reason that more members of normative Jewish communities attend on these days than any other (pause) an inherent seriousness that is felt by us Jewish people now more than ever.  Just the image of all of our deeds being laid out for judgement, should be enough to at the very least to force into a personal Cheshbon Nefesh or accounting of the soul. The names of this period convey a similar sense of discomfort.  The ten days of repentance, the day of judgement, and of course the Day of Atonement.  Consider the fact that at the entire ten days build up to the last service of Neillah, during which we stand throughout, the proverbial gates open in our faces, in one last concerted effort to be inscribed in the book of life.  The imagery of the gates closing is designed to make us feel an urgency in our lives.  It is a bright and blinking neon sign screaming at us the lesson of the great Rabbi Hillel, if not now when?  If we are unable to appreciate the finite nature of our lives in this time, when will we be able to do so?  Even more importantly, once we have, will it paralyze us or empower us to act? 

Rabbi Max Arzt a professor of liturgy at the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote and taught about the High Holy days and the beautiful but difficult liturgy of the season.  He writes, “Although the days of repentance are a time of judgement, they are not to be regarded as days of doom.  The time is fixed by humanity, and the outcome depends on our initiative.”  There is a story in the Jerusalem Talmud that says, “How different Israel is!  Ordinarily when the judge says the trial is today, and the accused says it is tomorrow, whose order is followed?  The judge of course.  But not so with God.  When the court of the people decrees today is Rosh Hashanah.  God says to the ministering Angels, “Set up the platform for the holding court, summon the attorneys for prosecution and the defense, for my children have declared that today is Rosh Hashanah.”  Despite the intense discomfort of standing in judgement, and the vulnerability of a world that is often out of our control, if we take the initiative, we alone hold the power to transform our lives.  This, ultimately is the lesson of the book of life.

The liturgy of these holy days also makes us uncomfortable.  The Torah readings on Rosh Hashanah are not about the creation of the world which is celebrated during this time.  Rather we read about the birth and almost sacrifice of Isaac.  We debase the self, in moments like the Hineni prayer and liturgical questions such as who are we, what is our contribution to the world, and what is the value of our lives.  We relive a violent and bloody Temple service that reminds us the lengths that our ancestors were willing to go to, to achieve the atonement that we begin to seek today. 

We cry through Yizkor and Martyrology services that remind us of those who were not written into the book of life, many taken after an all too brief existence.   We blast the Shofar again and again, 200 times throughout Rosh Hashanah, and one last clarion blast at the end of Yom Kippur.  All of this, each and every uncomfortable moment in the Mahzor, and during this season, is meant to shake us, to wake us from the complacency of our daily existence.  To both coerce and inspire us to grow in the coming year. 

I think though that the most difficult liturgical moment that we share during the High Holy Day Season is the famous U’netaneh Tokef prayer, when we actually imagine the manner in which we might meet our own demise in the coming year.  The tefillah begins by delineating the exact fashion that each one of us will stand in judgement.  Next assuming the real possibility that we might fail during this moment of judgement, the author describes the consequences of this failure: Who by fire, and who by water?  Who by sword and who by beast.  Who will live a long life, and who will meet an untimely end.  It is a wonder that we can actually continue on in the service after reading the words of and listening to the haunting tune of this prayer. Rabbi Arzt writes about U’netaneh Tokef, “It is not the poet’s intention however, to induce a fatalistic resignation; but rather the opposite, to deny that our lives are subject to an irremediable fate.  The prayer in fact reaches its climax, when it assures us that it is within our power to annul an evil decree, to reopen the future, and to reclaim the initiative it gives.”  The quantity of our lives is often out of our control, but the quality lies in our hands alone. 

The greatest discomfort we feel during this time of year, is the very day of Yom Kippur itself.  On this day we actually rehearse our own death.  We wear white which symbolizes the burial shroud that each of us will don at the end of our days.  We deny ourselves life’s most basic functions.  We don’t eat, drink, bathe or afford ourselves any of life’s basic needs.  We eschew necessity in favor of urgency, and with great pain we imagine what it might be like to no longer exist in the world.  It is fair to ask why the Rabbis interpreted the biblical command to afflict ourselves into the day we know today.  Some might even suggest that a full day in synagogue is affliction enough.  Yom Kippur especially, but in earnest all of the ten days of repentance force us to live in the aura of the ultimate vulnerability, our very existence. 

My teacher Rabbi Alan Lew discusses the uncomfortable phenomenon that is Yom Kippur in his book, This is Real and you are Completely Unprepared: The Days of Awe as a Journey of Transformation.  Rabbi Lew writes, “For twenty-four hours you rehearse your own death.  You wear a shroud and like a dead person you neither eat nor drink.  You summon the desperate strength of life’s last moments.  A great wall of speech is hurled against your heart again and again; a fist beats against the wall of your heart relentlessly until you are broken-hearted and confess to your great crime.  You are a Human being, guilty of every crime imaginable.  Your heart is cracking through its shell to be reborn.  Then a chill grips you.  The gate between heaven and earth has suddenly begun to close.  This is your last chance.  Everyone has run out of time.  Every heart has broken.  The gate clangs shut, the great horn sounds one last time.  But you feel curiously lighthearted and clean.”

What Rabbi Lew understands is that if we succumb to the discomfort of this time of year, we remain the same. If we decide that the journey is just too hard and that we are not taking it, we will be in the exact same place that we are today next year.  But if we can embrace these moments, take the journey and recognize our vulnerability without letting it paralyze us, then we give ourselves the gift of meaningful growth in the coming year.  A gift that we each so richly deserve.  Life is a series of journeys.  There are times when a comfortable and easy journey is preferable and even understandable.  But if we want to evolve as people.  If we want to be ever engaged in the exploration and betterment of the self, and those around us.  It is incumbent upon us to take the difficult and uncomfortable journeys as well.  As members of a Jewish community we are well-practiced in this very idea.  Each year we embark on this journey, albeit a little forced and the participants a little unwilling.  But we know that this journey, and others like it, have the power and energy needed to transform and elevate our very lives.   

I want to share a story with you that I came across some time ago.  A tourist in Iceland was reported missing.  The woman was a part of a group travelling by bus. When the bus stopped near Iceland’s Eldgja canyon in the southern highlands, the woman got off to freshen up, change her clothes and put on a heavy dose of make-up. But when she got back on the bus, the other passengers didn’t recognize her, so they reported her missing.  They also incorrectly counted the number of passengers. The description of the woman must not have been that accurate because she didn’t even recognize it. Not thinking it was her, she joined the search. About 50 people searched the terrain on foot and with vehicles until the early hours of the morning.  A Coast Guard helicopter was even ready to join the search, but foggy conditions prevented that from happening. The search was called off around 3 a.m. when people realized the missing woman had been on the bus all along.

I heard this story and was struck by how a few changes could completely alter our view of ourselves. We can get off of our bus and add a little kindness and goodness and poof we have changed ourselves dramatically for the better.  That is what this time of year is ultimately about.  These Holy days take us on a journey of self-assessment and transformation.  If we submit ourselves to her customs and unique words, then we emerge on the other side better versions of ourselves.  The discomfort and vulnerability of the journey, including the times where we may even find it difficult to recognize ourselves, are precisely what enables us to reach heights previously unimagined.  We are only here today because Abraham took the ultimate journey so many years ago. 

We are on this journey together.  It started some months ago, and I can’t tell you how happy we are to be here.  Chizuk Amuno has been an institution in Baltimore and the national Conservative movement for almost 150 years.  Please allow this to sink in for just a moment.  150 Years!  WOW.  I am so humbled to have been chosen as your senior rabbi, and the next steward of this great tradition.  But I have to point out, that both you this beloved congregation, and we the Gruenberg family, only arrived here after and intense and yes sometimes winding journey.  We are ecstatic that we made the decision and hope and pray that you feel the same.  Our journey though has just begun.  There is more to do, more room to grow and more to experience down the road.  There will undoubtedly be moments of vulnerability and discomfort, but I look forward to navigating them together with you.   I know that we will emerge collectively stronger, as we build on our legacy, empower the present, and insure our sacred future.  Shannah Tovah



Rabbi Gruenberg Rosh Hashanah I – Sermon from Chizuk Amuno Congregation on Vimeo.